Exploring lock-free Rust 1: Locks

As a learning exercise I set out to implement a simple lock-free algorithm in Rust. It was inspired by a problem posed at job interviews at a company where a friend works. The problem is simple enough that it can be tackled by a beginner, but tricky enough to require some thought to get right – and Rust presents several new challenges compared to the original Java.

This series of articles presents the evolution of a simple Rust lock-free container starting from single-threaded, progressing to a multi-threaded variant with locks, and finally settling on a lock-free implementation, discussing the trade-offs at each step. A basic understanding of Rust and of multi-threading programming is assumed, but the articles might be useful to adventurous beginners at both. Do note, however, that the author is not an expert at lock-free programming, so there might be errors – if you find some, please do leave a comment.

The Exercise

Implement a class providing access to a cached value. In more details:

Write a LazyTransform class that stores a single value, allowing it to be updated as needed. The value is potentially expensive to compute, so the setter method, set_source receives a “source” that will be used to compute the final value using a transformation function received in the LazyTransform constructor. Transformation must not be attempted until requested by get_transformed. Once generated, the value is cached and returned by further invocations of get_transformed, until invalidated by a new call to set_source.

A single-threaded version can be summarized with the following Python:

class LazyTransform:
    def __init__(self, transform_fn):
        self.transform_fn = transform_fn
        self.source = None
        self.value = None

    def set_source(self, new_source):
        self.source = new_source

    def get_transformed(self):
        if self.source is not None:
            newval = self.transform_fn(self.source)
            if newval is not None:
                self.value = newval
                self.source = None
        return self.value

The class must support being called from multiple threads, with the following semantics:

  • set_source and get_transformed can and will be called on the same LazyTransformer instance in parallel;
  • Once set_source completes, future invocations of get_transformed must eventually start returning the new value.
  • Read-heavy usage pattern is expected, so get_transformed must not block regardless of how many times set_source or get_transformed are called in other threads. The one exception is when a new source is detected – it is allowed for get_transformed to block until the transformation finishes before returning the transformed value (and caching it for future calls).
  • The code must be lock-free: neither set_source nor get_transformed should get stuck waiting on each other, even if they are called in quick succession or in parallel by many threads, or both.

Rust API tradeoffs

Before proceeding to parallelization, let’s review how the above interface would map to Rust’s type system. Ideally we’d want to place as few restrictions as possible on the type of values used for the source and the final objects; either could be as simple as a single u32 or a huge heap-allocated object. We know, for example, that both the source and the value type must be Send, because they need to be accessed from threads different from those that create them.

Another necessary restriction is that the final value type must be Clone. Why? Consider how the concept of “returning of cached value”, the return self.value line in the above Python, maps to Rust. In Python the semantics are clear because all of its objects are heap-allocated, and you always get the same instance shared. This is also the specified by the original Java exercise, which returns an Object. But a correct Rust implementation needs to deal with an actual value stored in the cache, and has three options for returning it:

  1. move the object out of the container, typically by making the value field an Option and returning self.value.take();
  2. return a reference to the object, return &self.value;
  3. clone the object and return the cloned value to the caller.

The first option obviously doesn’t work because it would prevent get_transformed to return the cached value more than once. The second option looks feasible until one considers that the returned reference cannot be allowed to outlive the stored value. Since the stored value can be invalidated by a call to set_source, which can happen literally at any time, it is clear that allowing a reference to be returned would be unsound. Indeed, all such attempts are promptly rejected by the borrow checker.

Although cloning at first appears like it would be inefficient for arbitrary objects, it actually provides the greatest flexibility for the user. Light values, such as numeric IDs which are Copy (and hence also Clone), or small strings which are cheap to clone, can be placed in the cache as-is. Heavy values, on the other hand, can be dynamically allocated and accessed as Arc<ActualData>, ensuring that their clone only increments a reference count, providing the semantics one would expect from equivalent Python or Java. If needed, one can even combine the two and store a tuple of a light object and a heavy one.

So, LazyTransform needs to be generic on the value type (T) and the source type (S). But let’s not forget the transformation function received by the constructor. Fixing its type to fn(S) -> T would limit it to stateless functions, and we would like the user to be able to provide an arbitrary closure for transformation. One option would be to accept a generic function object in the constructor and box it in a Box<Fn(S) -> T>, but that would impose a dynamic allocation on each LazyTransform instance, as well as an indirection when invoking the function. If the transformation function is known at compile time and carries no state, it should incur neither storage nor run-time indirection overhead. This is easily achieved by adding a third type parameter, that of the transformation function type.

As a demonstration of the API, here is a single-threaded implementation of the container:

pub struct LazyTransform<T, S, FN> {
    transform_fn: FN,
    source: Option<S>,
    value: Option<T>,
}

impl<T: Clone, S, FN: Fn(S) -> Option<T>> LazyTransform<T, S, FN> {
    pub fn new(transform_fn: FN) -> LazyTransform<T, S, FN> {
        LazyTransform {
            transform_fn: transform_fn,
            source: None, value: None,
        }
    }

    pub fn set_source(&mut self, source: S) {
        self.source = Some(source);
    }

    pub fn get_transformed(&mut self) -> Option<T> {
        if let Some(source) = self.source.take() {
            let newval = (self.transform_fn)(source);
            if newval.is_some() {
                self.value = newval;
            }
        }
        self.value.clone()
    }
}

In spirit this is exactly the same thing as the original Python, except sprinkled with a healthy dose of static typing.

Compile-time thread safety

What happens if we try to share an instance of LazyTransform among threads? Rust will prevent that at compile time — invoking a &mut method from multiple threads would require creating multiple &mut references to the same object, which is prevented by the borrow checker. For example, the following doesn’t compile:

fn main() {
    let mut lt = LazyTransform::new(|x: u64| Some(x + 1));
    std::thread::spawn(move || {            // lt moved here
        for i in 0..10_000 {
            lt.set_source(i);
        }
    });
    while lt.get_transformed().is_none() {  // lt used after move
    }
    let val = lt.get_transformed().unwrap();
    assert!(val >= 0 && val < 10_000);
}

lt gets moved into the closure executed by the new thread, but then it is no longer available for use by the main thread. Sending it by reference wouldn’t work because there can exist only one &mut reference to an object, so we wouldn’t be allowed to send the same reference to multiple threads. Allocating LazyTransform dynamically and using Arc to share it among threads wouldn’t help either because Arc only provides shared access to the data it owns.

In Rust, supporting parallel access to a container requires not only a change in implementation, but also in method signatures. This is an intentional design decision – while Python or Java single-threaded code will happily execute when called from multiple threads, providing incorrect results, the Rust version will refuse to compile when the thread-unsafe LazyTransform object is accessed from two threads.

The compiler uses simple rules to decide whether it is safe to share an object between threads:

  1. Methods invoked from more than one thread must accept &self rather than &mut self. This rule is enforced by the borrow checker for single-threaded code as well.
  2. The object must not contain values of types specifically blacklisted for multi-threaded access even through shared references. In Rust terms, its type must “be Sync”, meaning it implements the Sync marker trait, which most objects do. Examples of non-Sync types are Rc or Cell, and both have thread-safe equivalents.

At a glance, the first rule seems to rule out LazyTransform as a multi-threaded type. Both its public methods clearly modify the object, with set_source even doing that in a way that is observable from the outside. Changing the signatures to accept &self instead of &mut self fails to compile because both methods modify the data behind the &self shared reference, which is prohibited. Accessing an object inside &self will also result in further shared references that are read-only.

To modify data, we must find a way to obtain an exclusive mutable reference from the shared reference to self. This is not allowed for ordinary objects because the compiler would have no way to ensure that writes are exclusive, i.e. that while a thread holds a mutable reference to a value, no other thread can read it or write to it. However, if we could statically convince Rust that the reference’s ownership of the data will be exclusive, it would be within the rules to allow the conversion. This is where mutexes come in.

Mutexes

Rust’s Mutex type provides read-write access to the value it protects, using the appropriate operating system primitive to ensure that this can be done by only one thread at a time. Here is an implementation of LazyTransform updated to use a mutex:

use std::sync::Mutex;

struct LazyState<T, S> {
    source: Option<S>,
    value: Option<T>,
}

pub struct LazyTransform<T, S, FN> {
    transform_fn: FN,
    state: Mutex<LazyState<T, S>>,
}

impl<T: Clone, S, FN: Fn(S) -> Option<T>> LazyTransform<T, S, FN> {
    pub fn new(transform_fn: FN) -> LazyTransform<T, S, FN> {
        LazyTransform {
            transform_fn: transform_fn,
            state: Mutex::new(LazyState { source: None, value: None }),
        }
    }

    pub fn set_source(&self, source: S) {
        let mut state = self.state.lock().unwrap();
        state.source = Some(source);
    }

    pub fn get_transformed(&self) -> Option<T> {
        let mut state = self.state.lock().unwrap();
        if let Some(new_source) = state.source.take() {
            let new_value = (self.transform_fn)(new_source);
            if new_value.is_some() {
                state.value = new_value;
            }
        }
        state.value.clone()
    }
}

Both methods now operate on &self, relying on the mutex to obtain write access to the data in self.state. As far as method signatures are concerned, this is the final version of the API – all future versions will only differ in implementation.

The storage is now split into transform_fn, which is itself immutable and can be invoked from a shared reference, and state, the mutable part of the object’s state moved to a separate struct and enclosed in a mutex. As can be seen here, Rust’s Mutex is a container that holds and owns the data it protects. While that coupling looks strange at first, it enables the mutex to safely grant read-write access to the data it owns.

Calling Mutex::lock() waits until an exclusive OS lock is acquired, then returns a “guard” object, that both LazyTransform methods store in a local variable called state. The mutex will not be unlocked until the guard goes out of scope. Therefore the existence of a live guard represents a proof that the mutex is locked and therefore provides read-write access to the underlying data.

In Rust’s twist on mutex semantics, the very meaning of the act of locking a mutex is obtaining temporary exclusive write access to its data through a temporary guard object. Despite self being a shared reference, a successful self.state.lock() grants access to &mut LazyState that may last for as long as the mutex is locked (guard exists) and no more. This is the crux of the way Rust prevents data races through static analysis.

Other than the curious mutex design, there is nothing really interesting about the code itself. Once the mutex is locked, both functions do exactly the same thing that their single-threaded counterparts did. While this code is thread-safe in the sense Rust promises, i.e. free from data races, it is still very far from being efficient when invoked in parallel, even ignoring the stringent lock-free requirements. In particular, get_transformed is extremely inefficient in a read-heavy scenario because each call blocks all other calls even when set_source isn’t called at all. When a transformation is in progress, all the other readers are blocked until it is finished.

Fine-grained locking

To minimize the amount of time spent waiting, we can take advantage of the following facts:

  • The methods are operating on two distinct pieces of data, source and value. set_source, for example, doesn’t access value at all. The two fields can be protected with different locks.
  • get_transformed has two distinct modes of operation: a fast one when it only returns the cached value, and the slow one when it detects that the source has changed and it needs to calculate the new value. The vast majority of calls to get_transformed can be expected to belong to the “fast” scenario.

Here is an implementation that uses finer-grained locking to ensure that readers don’t wait for either writers or other readers:

use std::sync::{Mutex, RwLock};

pub struct LazyTransform<T, S, FN> {
    transform_fn: FN,
    source: Mutex<Option<S>>,
    value: RwLock<Option<T>>,
    transform_lock: Mutex<()>,
}

impl<T: Clone, S, FN: Fn(S) -> Option<T>> LazyTransform<T, S, FN> {
    pub fn new(transform_fn: FN) -> LazyTransform<T, S, FN> {
        LazyTransform {
            transform_fn: transform_fn,
            source: Mutex::new(None),
            value: RwLock::new(None),
            transform_lock: Mutex::new(()),
        }
    }

    pub fn set_source(&self, source: S) {
        let mut locked_source = self.source.lock().unwrap();
        *locked_source = Some(source);
    }

    pub fn get_transformed(&self) -> Option<T> {
        if let Ok(_) = self.transform_lock.try_lock() {
            let mut new_source = None;
            if let Ok(mut locked_source) = self.source.try_lock() {
                new_source = locked_source.take();
            }
            if let Some(new_source) = new_source {
                let new_value = (self.transform_fn)(new_source);
                if new_value.is_some() {
                    *self.value.write().unwrap() = new_value.clone();
                    return new_value;
                }
            }
        }
        self.value.read().unwrap().clone()
    }
}

In this implementation there is no longer a “state” structure protected by a coarse mutex, we are back to individual fields. The source field is protected by its own mutex and the value field is protected by a separate RwLock, which is like a mutex, except it allows read access by multiple concurrent readers that don’t block each other. Finally, a new transform_lock field doesn’t protect any particular piece of data, it serves as something resembling a conventional mutex.

set_source locks the source mutex and replaces the source with the new value. It assigns to *locked_source because locked_source is just the variable holding the guard, and assigning Option<S> to it would be a type error. Since the guard provides automatic access to &mut Option<S>, *locked_source at the left-hand side of the assignment serves to both coerce the guard to &mut Option<S> (returned by guard’s implementation of DerefMut::deref_mut) and at the same time to dereference it, so that the value behind the reference is replaced with the new one.

get_transformed is more sophisticated. It first ensures that only a single call attempts to interact with the writer at one time. This is for two reasons: first, to avoid set_source being “attacked” by a potentially large number of readers in a read-heavy scenario. Second, we want to prevent more than one transformation happening in parallel, which would require the result of one expensive transformation to be thrown away. The synchronization is implemented using try_lock, which immediately returns if the lock could not be obtained. In case of failure to lock, get_transformed gives up and returns the cached value, which meets its requirements. If it acquires transform_lock, it proceeds to check whether a new source is available, again with a try_lock and a fallback to returning the cached value. This ensures that get_transformed gets out of the way of set_source as much as possible. If it acquires the source lock, it uses Option::take() to grab the new value, leaving None in its place. If the captured source is not None, meaning a new source was published since the last check, get_transformed performs the transformation, caches its result, and returns a copy.

get_transformed uses a RwLock to ensure that readers don’t wait for each other, but that the update is exclusive. RwLock nicely maps to Rust’s ownership system by RwLock::read returning a guard that provides shared reference to the underlying data, and RwLock::write returning a guard that provides a mutable reference.

This implementation is about as good as it can get with the use of locks. The problem statement, however, requires get_transformed and set_source not to block each other regardless of how often they are invoked. The above implementation will attempt an exclusive lock of source just to check if a new source has appeared. When this lock succeeds, set_source will be blocked for the duration of the lock. In a read-heavy scenario, get_transformed will be called often and by many different threads, and it is easy to imagine it hogging the lock enough to slow down set_source, which must wait to acquire the lock (it cannot use try_lock) in order to do its job.

Changing this requires looking outside the constructs offered by safe Rust, as discussed in the next post.

2 thoughts on “Exploring lock-free Rust 1: Locks”

  1. Isn’t there an error in the Python code?
    It seems to recompute the value everytime instead of doing it only, when self.source changed.

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